Unique Voodoo Experience Tours in Togo
Ghana, Togo and Benin offer the visitor the chance to witness voodoo ceremonies in remote villages, to wander through glorious old colonial towns and to stay in remote Somba villages with strong and ancient traditions and incredible architecture.
Jim takes on of our pioneering tours in Togo
I’ve always had a keen interest in our tours in Togo. Now here I am and my destination is the small town of Kpalime, not too far from the border and surrounded by mountains.
They are however mountains in the English sense, being only around 1000 metres, but the gentle climb in altitude offers a slight relief from the languid heat of the lowlands.
We struggle to find anywhere to eat – Seyidou explains that this is due to it being both a Sunday and close to New Year – but manage to persuade a miniscule restaurant with one lone table on its terrace to open up.
I sit next to a fir tree draped with tinsel and read an advertisement on the wall offering Christmas trees for sale at startlingly high prices, while the owner puts ‘Barbie Girl’ on the stereo at full volume, shattering the tranquillity of the street beyond.
Outside women clothed in vibrant colourful dresses drift by, talking in the way I’ve found to be common throughout Africa – they sound like they are in the middle of a heated and potentially violent argument but in fact are merely having animated discussions. The reality of sleepy Kpalime, with its dusty streets and wooden shops, doesn’t seem to coincide with the large dot it is allocated on my map, but I’m enjoying its laid back atmosphere and it grows on me quickly.
During a walk around the market I chance upon a crowd of spectators surrounding a group of about fifty women, all dressed identically, singing and dancing, thrusting their elbows and shoulders out as they stamp their feet and chant.
The best explanation I can get (or understand) from an onlooker is that they are all saleswomen from the nearby market stalls and are part of some official celebration for the new year.
I watch from the back for a while, frustratingly unable to get closer to the front to take photographs and not tall enough to have an unobstructed view over the many heads in front of me.
Kpalime’s one ‘main sight’ is the Catholic church built by the Germans in the early twentieth century, conveniently located just around the corner from the small auberge I’ve found for the night. Its appearance betrays its origin immediately, its architecture more in sync with Cologne than Kpalime, and recently restored with dazzling white pant, an incongruous sight in this rather shabby neighbourhood of dirt streets and ramshackle buildings.
I venture inside – it is pleasantly cool and shaded in direct contrast to the stifling heat of the day. There are only a couple of people sitting on the pews inside when I arrive but before I’ve had a chance to admire the stained glass windows more and more worshippers arrive, two priests and four altar boys emerge from the recesses and I’m soon in the middle of a full blown service.
I didn’t really bargain for this, although at 5pm on a Sunday it shouldn’t have been beyond my capabilities to deduce that this might happen.
Soon one of the priests says a few words and everyone stands up – I follow suit even though I haven’t a clue what it’s about, for fear of appearing disrespectful. Then comes singing, which I definitely can’t join in with, knowing neither the words nor the tune.
After about five minutes everyone sits down. I start to wonder when would be a polite time to leave, but feelings of awkwardness are mixed with a little curiosity, and I’m in the process of deciding which is more important when it starts all over again.
This stand up, sing, sit down routine continues for about half an hour, at which point I pluck up the courage to leave before I feel obliged to take communion.
The following morning I spend a few hours hiking through the mountains o the outskirts of the town. I’m accompanies by a guide with a butterfly net, the purpose of which is to catch and show me the myriad species – my guidebook tells me about five hundred – that live here.
He also explains about the medicinal properties of plants that we come across, and introduces me to my first kola nut, a large pink knobbly nut that is a mild stimulant, chewed by the people of the region for centuries. To my unaccustomed palate it tastes revolting. I can’t quite bring myself to finish one, and discreetly spit it out while he’s not looking.
We walk up a steep hill and discover a ‘chateau’ hidden on the summit; built by a French lawyer in the forties it was sold to the government after independence and became a retreat for the president, where he would entertain his inner circle.
Since his death it has been abandoned, although to be honest it looks as if it’s been neglected for many years before that. A lonely caretaker shows me around, opening doors to rather modest bedrooms with nineteen seventies wallpaper slowly peeling off the walls and thick patterned carpets. Everything has been left, bedspreads still on the beds, curtains still hanging, and mould grows in corners.
In the kitchen I find cups and plates in the cupboards and the enormous living room contains an equally huge wooden abstract sculpture. I climb up stairs onto a roof terrace while the caretaker follows, dropping larger and larger hints about the payment he expects from me.
A few years ago this place was out of bounds to all but the invited, but now it seems as if no-one cares. Eventually the forest will reclaim it, this monument to a dictator’s bad taste.
We drive on to the capital, Lome, past burning fields (Seyidou tells me that burnt fields make it easier to catch the local delicacy, grasscutter rat or ‘agouti’) and billboards warning of the dangers of sex. One features two young teenagers and proclaims ‘I am too young for sex – I choose abstinence. Another says ‘Be faithful or use condoms – a choice to make’. This is seen throughout our tours in Togo.
Like all sub-Saharan nations, and on all of our tours in Togo you will find a problem with AIDS, confounded by the fact that many people don’t even believe it exists. Other billboards sport rather graphic, if poorly executed, visual lessons on how to use condoms, while still more inform people that one cannot catch AIDS from sharing a meal with, or playing sports with, an HIV sufferer.
Africa, the worst affected continent on earth, struggles to deal with the same ignorance and prejudices that we experienced in the eighties.
Lome has a curious geographical location. With its city centre only yards from the Atlantic Ocean it is one of the only capital cities with an international border right on its doorstep. It is overwhelmingly shabby, rundown, loud and slightly unnerving and I like it immediately.
Motorbikes carrying two or three passengers wait in chaotic formations at junctions, women walk gracefully with enormous bundles poised delicately on their heads, schoolchildren in uniform wave at me with coy ‘bon soar’s and by the lake there appears to be an open air mosque where the faithful kneel and bow their heads.
Lome, at least according to my guidebook, has a reputation for being violent and dangerous, but Seyidou assures me that the troubles of the eighties and nineties are long gone and I can relax.
I take his advice while keeping an eye on my shoulder bag.
Like most African capitals Lome has few specific sights, but makes for a couple of interesting hours of people watching from a pavement café. The following day though I approach its most famous attraction with mixed feelings. Akodessewa fetish market is an animal lover’s nightmare.
On a patch of ground on the outskirts of the city, you can find the body parts of just about every creature in the region, sold to provide ingredients for spells and potion to a population that never quite abandoned traditional beliefs with the arrival of Europeans.
I spot the heads of antelopes and horses, their faces contorted into grotesque expressions, whole stalls of dessicated lizard corpses, dead bats, the heads of cats and dogs, rows of owls, parrots and crows and even the head of an enormous turtle. The stallholders point out several leopard and hyena heads, the latter often with their dead tongues sticking obscenely out of their mouths, jaws clenched.
Most disturbing though are the rows of monkey heads staring at me. Among these are heads of chimpanzees and gorillas, which I’m told come from Nigeria.
I ask the price of a chimp head and the vendor misinterprets my curiosity and starts to wrap it up for me before I stop her. It costs CFA35,000 – about £50. Africa’s endangered wildlife meets a grisly end here to satisfy the desires of people for whom Western medicine is often the second choice.
Later that day I am sitting in a pirogue, in a swamp, at the end of a bumpy dirt road about thirty kilometres from Lome. Three men are having a fight at one end of it, standing in the water and in turn pulling each other away from the boat, and the other passengers are yelling at them.
Unfortunately I suspect it has something to do with me. Two of the men grab the other by the throat and pull him into the reeds, and after a bit more wrangling and shouting we depart.
Eventually I ascertain that one of the men was insisting I travel in his pirogue and pay a higher fare. Our pilot poles us through narrow channels in the reeds, herons and egrets circling overhead. The sun is deathly hot and my T-shirt is rapidly becoming drenched in sweat. After about thirty minutes we reach land and everyone disembarks, walking off to tiny villages hidden from the modern world.
I walk for a couple of kilometres, following the rhythmic beating of drums somewhere in the bush. I am in search of Kokou, the powerful voodoo god that few foreigners ever see. After passing numerous small shrines caked with wax and dried blood, I reach the village and enter another world entirely. In a small compound bare-chested men beat drums and women dance as if in the throes of a fit.
The spectators number about two hundred, and my presence is very conspicuous. Yet a space is cleared for me and I sit down, watching enrapt as dancers stamp their feet, hands clapping, eyes closed.
The sound of the drums is hypnotic and it is easy to understand how voodoo acolytes often fall into trances during their ceremonies. The combination of the pounding drums, and no less pounding sun, almost has me in one myself.
And then he emerges – a man wearing nothing but a grass skirt, dancing frantically, turning somersaults, his eyes glazed and his skin caked in a mixture of sweat and thick yellow powder. The villagers are visibly in awe – this man is possessed by the spirit of Kokou, the warrior god, the most fiercesome and violent of the voodoo pantheon.
Kokou adepts are renowned for the visceral displays of their devotion – Kokou makes them slash themselves with knives and razors as a way of becoming closer to him. It strikes me now that this is not so dissimilar from the Christian flagellants of Europe in the Middle Ages. Kokou dances and dances, rolling on the ground and picking up whatever is to hand to draw blood.
Blood oozes from wounds on his arms and torso, and his body is covered in scars, evidence of many past ceremonies.
Periodically men jump from the surrounding crowd, spinning out of control and veering dangerously close to the onlookers before they are grabbed and slung, unconscious, over the shoulders of a man who I take to be some sort of crowd control. Kokou grabs razor blades, slashing himself while he jumps, sometimes beckoning to frightened children in the crowd who hide in their mothers’ arms.
This is African religion, untamed, raw, as it has existed for centuries. Eventually Kokou himself is thrown over someone’s shoulders and taken away. The drumming and dancing continues, each women trying to outdo the other, shaking themselves to such an extent that breasts frequently pop out of clothing.
The rhythm doesn’t lose pace, if anything becoming faster and faster, an overwhelming aural assault that forces utter surrender. And then Kokou appears, naked, on the top of a building behind the drummers.
He appears to be even less in control of himself than earlier and falls off the edge, bringing half of the roof with him, and runs towards the crowd, causing great alarm to all except the children, who giggle, but is grabbed again and removed before he can do any damage.
I am entirely spellbound by the whole ceremony.My expectation of what the tours in Togo involved has been far exceeded.
I had hoped to see genuine voodoo rituals but had feared it may have been staged for the tourist. Seeing the genuine involvement of these villagers in this awe inspiring event, their concentration, their fear, their ecstasy, is far beyond what I had hoped to see.
Spending these few hours in the company of people to whom voodoo is an everyday part of their lives has been an enormous privilege, and one I am unlikely to forget. Our tours in Togo offer some truly unique experiences.